A couple of days ago, when it was still sunny and warm, I stood at the gate behind my house, looking into a field under the Downs where the first of this year’s lambs had just been born. I watched this lamb uncollapse itself to stand for the first time, shadowed by the shaggy bulk of its mother. The ewe’s milk hadn’t come in, so Philip, the shepherd and gamekeeper, is in attendance.
Used to people, these sheep are always friendly, inquisitive. Even so, my daughter (who won’t thank me for sharing this) is terrified whenever they come running towards her. I tell her, it’s greeting not aggression, but she’s not convinced, and cowers. The sheep are interested in us, but they trust Philip, they know him.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge published findings recently that appeared to show sheep are able to identify individual human faces. In laboratory tests, the Cambridge sheep could tell the difference, apparently, between Fiona Bruce, Emma Watson and Barack Obama. The conclusion being, I suppose, that the ability to spot celebrities and politicians is a sign of intelligence, confers some evolutionary advantage perhaps. (I actually wonder whether the reverse might be the case.)
Anyway, sheep are cleverer than we thought. Philip wouldn’t have needed a university research department to tell him this. While we’re suggesting sheep recognise their shepherd, we’ve always known shepherds recognise their sheep.
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.Ezekiel 34:11-12
The Lord God goes on to say he will ‘Judge between sheep and sheep.’ (34:17) He will mark and judge the sheep that trample the pasture, ruining it for others, those that muddy the drinking water in the brooks. (34:19) This shepherd can spot the strong and fat sheep using their strength to bully the weaker, those less able to defend themselves. (34:21)
So, where is this shepherd when you really need him? And we really need him.
In his screenplay for On the Waterfront (1954; dir. Elia Kazan), Budd Schulberg has Father Barry, the local Catholic priest, stand in the hold of a ship, over the corpse of Nolan, a murdered longshoreman who was about to testify against the mob. Father Barry says to the assembled dock workers and union bosses
Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up.
When one of the corrupt union officials shouts for him to go back to his church, Father Barry angrily responds:
Boys, this is my church! If you don’t think Christ is here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming. And who do you think He lines up with? Every morning when the hiring boss blows his whistle, Jesus stands alongside you in the line-up. He sees why some of you get picked and some of you get passed over. He sees the family men worrying about getting their rent and getting food in the house for the wife and kids. And what does Christ think of the easy-money boys who do none of the work and take all of the gravy? You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? It’s forgetting that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ. But remember, fellas, Christ is always with you — Christ is in the line-up, He’s on the deck — He’s in the union hall — He’s kneeling right here beside Nolan.
from On the Waterfront, screenplay by Budd Schulberg
These words, and Karl Malden’s performance as Father Barry, changed my life. I still can’t watch this scene without weeping. I can’t read it without weeping.
Jesus said, ‘I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’Matthew 25:42-43
We still – still – look for our shepherds at the podium, in palaces, on posters, behind bullet proof glass. We fail to recognise our shepherd in the boy on the checkout at the Co-op; we don’t recognise him in the mother at the foodbank who has lost all her cleaning jobs because of the virus and is struggling to feed her family, in the stranger, the refugee, the nurse. That’s not him, surely? Not our shepherd?
Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’Matthew 25:40
The shepherd is among us, and always has been, always will be. And there’s no bargain to be struck, no union dues demanded. He asks us not to swear allegiance to him, to fight for him, or vote for him, just to love him. To love him. And to love one another.
The sheep in the Cambridge study were able to recognise celebrities, were able to recognise their shepherds. Marvellous. But surely we’re missing the blindingly obvious: they recognise each other.
We will be judged – as Jesus and Ezekiel both make clear – but not by worldly success, not by how dutiful we’ve been as worshipping Christians, not even by faith – but by how much we’ve recognised and loved one another.
And I tell you, I see that love growing and flourishing all around us, everywhere I look. In the field behind my house, but also in the villages and towns where I live and work too. In the streets, surgeries, care homes and hospitals.
God bless you all,
This is one of the most stirring and powerful pieces of music I know. It dates from the seventeenth or early eighteenth century and comes from the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria. It’s often called A Shepherdess’s Song, which is why I felt able to choose it today. But in fact it has nothing to do with sheep or shepherdesses! It’s about a rebel leader, Delyo, who stands up for the persecuted against oppressors and tyrants – so, I think it’s still on theme.
Great Shepherd of the flock,
seek us out when we are separated,
draw us to yourself when we are alone,
bind us up when we are broken.
Give us the vision to recognise you,
the courage to trust you,
the will to follow you,
that we may enter the fold at last,
through the Gate who is your Son
our Lord Jesus Christ.